miscellaneous musings

The best beekeeping advice I ever shared

Recently, I’ve been told that the answer to any beekeeping question should begin with, “It depends.” This always makes me grin because the very first blog post I ever wrote—nearly eleven years ago—is titled, “Well, it depends.” Other beekeepers said it before me, of course, but I’ve repeated that advice thousands of times in the intervening years. The fact that people are now offering it back to me is reassuring. It’s nice to know it’s come full circle, that people are listening.

My third post, which followed nine days later in 2010, is very similar. Its title, “All beekeeping challenges are local” came from a vegetable gardener who believed that all gardening challenges were local. He stressed that growing vegetables in Austin was not the same as growing vegetables anywhere else and, to be successful, you must adjust your practice to meet conditions.

It’s the environment, not the bees

In truth, if you raise Apis mellifera in Rio de Janeiro, Quebec, Cheltenham, or Brisbane, the bees are not very different. Their biology is basically the same, their temperaments, habits, and yearly cycles are similar. But environmental conditions can be strikingly divergent from place to place.

You may think, “Of course conditions vary in different countries. That’s obvious.” But it’s important to remember that conditions in your backyard differ from those across town or down the street. Your backyard may be shady and damp, while your neighbor’s may be sunny and dry. Yours may be still, his may be windy. Yours may be shielded from pesticides while his is downwind of an apple orchard laden with chemicals. You can never overestimate the potential differences.

These variations explain why we have countless beekeeping techniques and a wide range of outcomes. If you manage your bees exactly as your neighbor does, you will most likely have different results. Experienced beekeepers know this, but it catches newbies unaware. If you believe all the answers are in a book or short course on beekeeping, you will be disappointed because no single way is the right way. It all depends on the individual colony and where it is.

Colonies are individuals

No two colonies are exactly alike. They have quirky genetics, one-of-a-kind homes, and variable food resources. Distinct dangers lurk in each neighborhood and beekeepers have various levels of experience with contrasting objectives and motivations. Put it all together and you can see why what works for Joe doesn’t work for James.

Furthermore, beekeepers react emotionally to their colonies. We might say, “I have a strong colony and a weak one. Why is one weak?” We never ask, “Why is one strong?” We assume that the stronger one is normal and the weaker one is deficient.

If they were children instead of colonies, would we see it the same way? Or would we assume the weaker one was normal and the stronger one had a gift? Why can we accept differences among children or puppies or racehorses but not among colonies? It doesn’t make sense.

My revised advice

I’ve written in an array of publications since my first post, and I’ve met thousands of beekeepers with stories of success and tales of failure. But of all the things I’ve suggested over the years, nothing feels “righter” than those two bits of wisdom.

Although I still think “It depends” and “All the challenges are local” are rock-solid ideas, I would like to add a third: “Every colony is an individual.” Each colony has unique characteristics that affect its ability to survive in an increasingly dangerous world, a world chockfull of the unexpected.

  • It depends
  • All the challenges are local
  • Every colony is an individual

All three ideas are closely related variations on a theme. But keeping them in mind can make us better beekeepers by teaching us to value the differences and use them to our advantage. Beekeeping would be boring indeed if every colony was a clone of the one beside it.

To become a better beekeeper, learn to recognize and celebrate the subtle differences among colonies, beekeepers, and environments. The rest will fall into place.

Honey Bee Suite

My new best beekeeping advice: Every colony is an individual. A landing board covered with bees and surrounded by flowers.
Every colony is an individual. Image by Onkel Ramirez from Pixabay


  • As new as we are to beekeeping, lesson 1 and 2 were learned right smack on top of the head our very first year as we struggled through the winter to keep our only hive alive. And lesson three, now that there are 5 hives is absolute gospel. No two hives on any given day react to me the same, though there most definitely are some that are predictable as rain in November. Thanks again for reminding me to continually remember the differences. Advice from a mentor from a distance needs to be evaluated based on our world, not theirs

  • Rusty,
    I am so pleased you wrote that piece, I am delighted to be reminded of that principle. It is important to remember it. Thank you for putting it so well,

  • Colonies are individuals: So true! My most productive colony this year produced over 140 lbs, whereas one of my least productive colonies, about 12 feet away, produced 17 lbs. I bred both queens from the same colony in June 2019!

  • Alistair,
    You put it so well. I have the same thing and wonder how it happens.
    What brings us all together is Rusty who raises these issues and makes us all think.
    We must think and and appreciate Rusty for keeping us all in line, when ever we look into our hives.

    BTW Rusty, you are the best. Thank you


  • Hi Rusty. All I want to say is it has been a while since u have written. I am glad u are back, I missed your posts.

    I hope you are doing good have a great week.

  • I echo Frances’ comment, Rusty. I’m thankful you’re back as well. I’ve learned so much more from reading your posts than I’ve ever learned from a mentor or a book. Stay safe and well, Rusty

  • Hi Rusty, Enjoyed your post and agree with your comments about local beekeeping and differences between hives. Not sure of the situation in the US but in Europe, we have another variable too – different subspecies of Apis mellifera. In the North of England, we are trying to work with Apis mellifera mellifera, believing that this subspecies is best suited to local conditions as it was native to this area. It is a totally different bee to A.m. ligustica (Italian) that some people import and hybrids between the two give us lots of challenges!

  • Welcome back Rusty! I am commenting to try again to be part of this conversation. Thank you! New keeper this year… caught a wild swarm. Our colony does indeed have a very different personality than our friend’s one mile away. We are down to only 7,000 bees, I estimate, have a long (horizontal) hive and they fill less than half of it. I appreciate your advice and donated some $ quite a few months ago. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Kirsten,

      Small colonies are not unusual in the winter, just keep them well-fed and dry. Those are the most important things when it’s cold.

      People keep saying “welcome back” and it makes me feel guilty; I didn’t know I was gone so long. I’ve spent the morning working on a backlog of 349 questions, so it’s daunting and a lesson about “disappearing.” Really I was nowhere, just working on magazine articles, etc.

      Thank you for the donation, too. I think about the donors a lot at this time of year when I’m paying for hosting, web security, email service providers, plug-ins, and other software. And for the first time in years, I need a new computer. Ugh. So you can see, without the generous ones, the website wouldn’t happen.

      Thanks for writing.

  • Thank you, thank you. And THAT is the reason, long ago, I posted that, if you line up the experts, they point in every direction. You know a lot. I know little. No one knows it all. I have struggled for over a decade. I have killed them by taking too much honey. I have killed them by not treating for mites. I have killed them by letting them get robbed. My shame is great. Who would have imagined that caring for an insect would be so difficult?

    Finally quit in shame and then a swarm moved into my deadout this spring. I did nothing and it (so far) is the finest colony we have hosted. Next spring, I will put the five frames we held out last year on them and add supers (if they live through).

    Read your articles in Countryside Magazine. Quite sure they can’t pay much as the magazine business is horrible. Enjoy Countryside. As an old-timer, think it’s the best and most honest “hippy” rag in the Biz. Thank You.

  • Great article, Rusty, as usual. It is always a pleasure to read your blog. But please don’t politicize this site …

  • Does anyone know what this bee behavior should tell me?
    I made a 50-second video at this address: https://youtu.be/N7PZ4JAEo8g
    This hive is diminishing rapidly. I don’t think it has the bee mass to make it so now it is a science experiment to understand how to be better in the future.

    Thank you in advance for your comments and interest.

    Regards, Jim Talt. Oregon

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